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By Ruth Leach on

Ladies Only: researching the Southern Railway 4-Sub

Are trains electric? The story of electrified train travel is just as much a part of the story as steam.

Myself and others on my team have been doing some research about the vehicles on display in the Great Hall here at York. One of the vehicles I’ve been looking at is the Southern Railway (SR) 4-sub, number S8143S. I must confess that I’ve developed quite a soft spot for this particular vehicle! Built in 1925, it ran on the largest electrified railway network of the period, transporting huge numbers of people in and out of London.

'Electrification', SR poster, 1925.
‘Electrification’, SR poster, 1925.

Two things about this vehicle really interest me. First, the posters that advertise SR suburban services are fantastic:

'The Quickest Way Between Two Points', Southern Railway poster, 1931. You'll be able to see this poster in our next Art Gallery exhibition: It's Quicker by Rail (4 July-6 October 2013)
‘The Quickest Way Between Two Points’, SR poster, 1931.
You’ll be able to see this poster in our next Art Gallery exhibition: It’s Quicker by Rail (4 July-6 October 2013)
'So Swiftly Home', SR poster, 1932.
‘So Swiftly Home’, SR poster, 1932.

The other thing that intrigues me about this vehicle is the presence of a ladies only compartment.

The Ladies Only compartment on our SR 4-Sub
The Ladies Only compartment on our SR 4-Sub

Ladies Only compartments were first introduced in 1874 by the Metropolitan Railway. It appears that the uptake for these compartments was quite low – the practice soon became to reserve a compartment on request, rather than all the time. So part of me wonders why the SR chose to maintain the service right into at least the 1920s, when this carriage was built.

One thing that Bob Gwynne, our Associate Curator of the vehicle collection, and I have been discussing is whether there is any connection to growing female employment after the First World War. Reading around the subject, it appears that the period immediately after the War saw a boom in female employment, particularly in clerical roles. By 1931 women accounted for 42% of the clerical workforce. This was also accompanied by a shift in attitude. Whereas clerical work had previously been seen as a suitable point for working class boys to enter a middle-class profession, by the 1930s it had been redefined as a well-paid, secure and most importantly respectable job for women prior to marriage.

SR poster advertising clerical jobs.
SR poster advertising clerical jobs for women.

It’s probably not too much of a leap to assume that a sudden upsurge of single, young women travelling to work resulted in railway companies providing Ladies Only compartments. I don’t know how far we can stretch the link, but it has certainly made me look at the 4-sub carriage in a new light.


‘Poverty and Aspiration: Young Women’s Entry to Employment in Inter-war England’, Selina Todd; Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2004), pp. 119-142.

The Rise and Fall of ‘Ladies Only’ Railway Compartments in the 19th Century, David Turner

11 comments on “Ladies Only: researching the Southern Railway 4-Sub

  1. IIRC,there were still “Ladies Only” compartments (2 per set?) in the ex-LNER Quint-Arts still running on NE London suburban services until electrification. Ditto, I think there were five or ten (i.e. one or two per coach) “Non-Smoking” compartments in those sets, which, unlike the SUBs (?) were all-compartment, with no saloons.

  2. According to a number of sources, the provision of “Ladies only” compartments was oficially abolished in 1977. They were only provided on “slam door” trains with separate compartments. The compartment stock remained until the late 1980s. Following the murder of a woman in a compartment on a NSE train on 23 March 1988, the remaining compartment coaches were restricted to several units that did not operate after 8pm. They were withdrawn as soon as possible afterwards.

  3. As a commuter on the Southern suburban network in the 1960’s and 1970’s I often rode in one of ten or so 4-sub sets which had been built in 1943.These consisted of four compartment only carriages with no corridor either within or between coaches. The end compartment in each of the front and rear coaches (ie next to the Guard’s Vans) was designated “Ladies Only.” I believe these sets lasted as long as the 1946 sets they worked with on the lines in to Waterloo, although I seem to remember the “Ladies Only” designation may have disappeared before the end of their working lives.

  4. We mustn’t forget the (apocryphal) story of the young lady who travelled on the Metropolitan Line, in the Ladies Only compartment next to the Guard’s compartment, and who often took a fancy to the Guard in such privacy. Rumour has it that five children resulted, all by different fathers, each of them a Metropolitan Guard…

  5. I believe that the last “Ladies Only” compartments on BR were on the loco hauled stock that ran on the widened lines from Moorgate, in London, behind Class 31s, until the lines were electrified in the late 1970s.

  6. Certainly the Watford to Euston DC lines , clas 501 units – had them into the 1970’s – beleive the equalities legisltation did for the lady only provison (as male only compartments would have been needed) – posiitoned next to the driving / guards accompodation from memory.

  7. In other parts of Europe at least, a 3rd “Ladies Compartment” was an euphemism for mother and child compartment, that is, it was meant for nursing mothers and their toddlers. 2nd (or first) ladies compartment was for proper ladies traveling alone.

  8. One of the most embarrassing moments of my youth was when I boarded the front compartment of a suburban train at Victoria in 1965 only to have the green “Ladies only” notice on the window pointed out to me by several smug occupants. Red-faced, I sought a compartment further back.

    Was it by chance that the “Ladies only” compartment was right behind the driver’s compartment – so occupants could pound on the partition to attract the driver’s attention?

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